Special Education for Autism: An International Perspective

Every time that I travel internationally I get the opportunity to visit special education schools for autistic individuals.  Usually, at the end of such visits, I am asked to provide some constructive criticism of the teaching institution. I think the ideas behind this request are: 1) to try to improve their services, and 2) that the US is regarded as the gold standard on education for many of the countries that I visit.  On some occasions when this has happened I have often wondered whether we could stand to learn more from them than the other way around.

I have visited Shanghai several times and used it as a pit stop when traveling to Hangzhou or Beijing. Shanghai has one of the highest scores in standardized educational testing in the world. The facilities that I have observed there house hundreds of individuals receiving special needs education.  Their classrooms, like those of many schools in the US, are divided according to skill and cognitive level, rather than by age.  Classrooms are student stable, that is, at the end of each period students remain in their room and new teachers come in to take care of the next subject.  These classrooms promote working in small groups rather than individually. In some schools, like in Russia, students work in team building activities before regular classroom hours. This has been of special benefit to those autistic students with ADHD traits. China, on the other hand, uses desensitization techniques during the same preschool setting. This consists of  massages aimed at decreasing or attenuating the sensitivities of autistic individuals before they make their way into the classroom.

The more successful educational programs that I have observed had a strong governmental backing that secured sustainable efforts towards their future endeavors.  However, the emphasis of education in these programs did not rest with the school and its teachers, but actively included parents and their surrounding communities. In China, parents accompany their kids all day at school and, in Russia, schools target community involvement in many of their activities.  Also, education focuses on the necessity of employment after education. You can probably say that they emphasize getting a job more than enhancing critical thinking skills.

According to standardized testing Indonesia has a substandard school system. The country is moving many of its students into vocational schools. While such a move has made it a laggard in STEM (science, technology, engineering, mathematics) based education, it has excelled in the field of special education. In similar fashion, China’s special education system has moved from a vocational training school to an apprentice program, e.g., beauticians, car mechanics, or grocery attendants.  Many of the members within special education schools in China are not teachers, but community members. Their programs revisit every single problem or demand that their students may face at the work-site. This type of training has the added benefit of penhancing socializing skills.

It is true that, around the world, socioeconomic status is the single most significant predictor of student performance. Students in wealthy communities, with more resources, tend to outdo those in poorer ones.  Students there have advantages that others do not have. It thus appears that the future of our children could be greatly changed if the government spent more money in education.  It is thus a pity that, in the US, education is not regarded as an innate right of individuals. While the first ten amendments of our constitution list a Bill of Rights that includes freedom of religion, speech and the right to bear arms, it fails to mention education.

We need an educational reform that avoids governmental politics.  Our focus on STEM education has left social and arts education lagging behind.  We emphasize many different subjects but quite superficially. Our educational system does not teach life skills. My own conclusion after visiting and learning from many countries is that special education should focus more on vocational training.

There are many things that can be integrated into a special education setting that can make a major difference to students. At one point I proposed monitoring students via telemetry in a work place environment, using robotics as part of the teaching process, using desensitization techniques (similar to what is presently used for PTSD) to treat social phobias, and integrating neurofeedback techniques right in the classroom. Hopefully such changes will happen in the not so distant future.

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